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The Suns Are On Fire, The Sixers Are Reeling, And Other Lessons From The NBA Bubble

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): It’s been a minute since we last chatted about the NBA at length, and for good reason: The whole world changed, calling into question whether the season could even be resumed at one point. But now the restart is in full swing — with no virus cases detected — and the playoffs are almost here.

The most drama-filled storyline to this point has been the battle for the eighth and ninth spots out West. I think it was always fair to expect Damian Lillard and Portland to fight their way into the conversation. But did any of us see the Suns making this 7-0 run since the restart? What’s gotten into them?

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I don’t want to say that Devin Booker is on fire because of the whole fire-sun connection, but Devin Booker is on fire.

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): With this restart record, the Suns get all the 🔥 jokes they want.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The jokes are still a no-go.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Of course, Phoenix is still only at 12 percent to make the playoffs, according to our model, so the jokes might stop in a hurry.

dre.waters: But Booker has been playing out of his mind, and the Suns have gotten more from their role players than I think most people expected.

chris.herring: I think I’ve been really impressed with how Phoenix has defended. They were just 19th before the restart, but they rank fourth since returning to play. And Mikal Bridges has been fantastic.

They need a little help still. But I didn’t even think they were worthy of making the trip to Orlando before this.

dubin: I think it’s two things:

  1. The new starting lineup with Cameron Johnson is crushing teams (plus-12.4 points per 100 possessions).
  2. Cameron Payne has solidified their backup point guard spot, which was a disaster pre-hiatus. During the regular season, they were 10.3 points worse per 100 possessions with Ricky Rubio on the bench. During the restart, they’ve been 17.9 points better with Rubio on the bench than in the game, and they’ve still been good with him in the game!

chris.herring: Yeah — there have been times over the years where I didn’t even understand why Cam Payne was in the league. He’s shot it really well. And Cam Johnson has been everywhere for them.

At a minimum, even if they don’t make the play-in game, this would all seem to be encouraging for them to start next season.

dubin: The combination of Bridges and Johnson at the forward slots is so tough to deal with defensively. And Deandre Ayton looks like he took another mini-leap on that end. I remember when he was sold pre-draft as a potential worst-defender-in-the-league type, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t average or better for the majority of his career now.

sara.ziegler: They’ve got to be happy with how the bubble has gone for them, even if they don’t make the actual playoffs. They started the season strong, too, as Chris reminded me last week.

dre.waters: And they started strong even without Ayton, which I think is important to note.

Their young core really seems to be devolving well. And if Bridges can continue to score like he has the past two games, they might be able to get into the play-in.

dubin: I do wonder if this performance might hurt them next year. Whether they finish 8-0 or 7-1, there are going to be “compete for the playoffs” expectations, and I’m not sure they can reach them. The West has too many good teams.

chris.herring: So one thing I think may be getting lost in all this, whether the last team in ends up being Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio — or even if Memphis holds on somehow — is that it’s made for fantastic drama.

I guess my question is: Has this experience bolstered the case for the NBA to adopt a play-in scenario going forward?

sara.ziegler: Ooooooh, interesting.

dubin: In theory, yes, but in practice, I feel like it’s more difficult than we think because of travel, arena availability and TV commitments.

It’s much easier in the bubble, obviously.

dre.waters: I would hope they consider it, it makes a lot of the late-season games that wouldn’t normally matter worth watching.

sara.ziegler: It does say something, though, about how boring the push to the regular season usually is. (Not always, obviously.)

I hate forced drama most of the time, but this has been so fun to watch.

chris.herring: I think there’s something to be said for the quality of the games and the teams, too. I didn’t really factor that part of it in initially.

sara.ziegler: And it makes me think that if the in-season tournament under consideration by the league were tied to one of the last playoff spots, that might be fun.

dubin: How much of the entertainment factor is attributable to not having sports to watch for so long, and how much is attributable to defenses (somewhat surprisingly) being way behind offenses and pushing every game into the 120s and 130s?

chris.herring: Yeah. Had it been offenses struggling instead of defenses, it would have been tougher to watch.

Moving on to something I’m personally interested in: There are probably 61 reasons that LeBron James and the Lakers would rather face anyone — be it Phoenix, Memphis or even San Antonio — than Dame and the Blazers in a first-round matchup. The Lakers haven’t been all that impressive since the restart, ranking dead last in offense. But would the Blazers or anyone else in that last spot realistically be able to push them in a playoff round?

dubin: I have serious doubts about the Blazers challenging anybody for anything if they continue allowing (approx.) 6091845621 points per 100 possessions on defense.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

dre.waters: LOL, Jared really does have a point though.

Dame is scoring left and right, but somehow they always seem to be in an uphill battle

chris.herring: That’s fair: The Lakers have been trash on offense — there are moments where Bron just fires up threes, almost as if he wants to save his legs, as opposed to driving to the basket. And they’re obviously incorporating Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith.

But L.A.’s defense has still been relatively fine. So I certainly understand thinking that Portland may not be able to get enough stops to be overly competitive.

dubin: The Lakers aren’t going to shut down Dame because nobody can do that, but they do have two of the better wing-on-guard defenders in the league in Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, which can make things slightly more difficult for him. Plus, this CJ McCollum back injury sounds … not great.

chris.herring: Yeah! That was so odd when that came across the timeline in such a casual way. We were all confused.

dre.waters: I think the question with CJ is how long could he be out. Because without him, I don’t know how competitive a Lakers/Blazers matchup is.

chris.herring: Honestly, he looked terribly out of rhythm on Tuesday. When the word about his injury came out, it actually made a ton of sense.

Let’s move to the East for at least a minute here: I can’t help but think that the Sixers — maybe the absolute wackiest team in this wacky season we’ve observed — are again in trouble. Ben Simmons is going to miss at least several weeks after having surgery on his knee. Embiid hurt his ankle but is apparently fine, and he just made his return on Wednesday.

They’re going to face the Celtics in Round 1. How likely is it that Philly, a club many saw as a contender or perhaps even favorite in the East, may not get to the second round?

dubin: I feel like it’s pretty likely at this point. Boston was the better team to begin with, and Philly now has one fewer perimeter defender to deal with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward.

sara.ziegler: Our model has been higher on the Sixers than their record might have warranted for a lot of the season, just because of their immense talent. But losing Simmons does all kinds of damage to that.

dre.waters: I don’t see the Sixers making it to the second round. Boston is just a better team to me this year.

Even before the bubble, it was always a question of which 76ers you’re going to get today. Now with Embiid’s health, which literally changes by the minute … it’s hard to imagine a situation where they find a way past the Celtics.

chris.herring: Like Jared, my biggest concern for Philly would be its defense without Simmons.

dubin: The most likely path for them to make it out of the first round probably involves Embiid playing 40ish minutes a night, and I feel like that’s not within the realm of reasonable possibilities given his health and conditioning.

chris.herring: Would be slightly intrigued to see if not having Simmons frees up the Sixers’ offense a bit more in a playoff setting. But the defense, sans Simmons, probably makes it too much of an uphill battle. And even if you do take out Boston, it seems like it would have been a bloodbath to do it, and they probably wouldn’t have much left for Toronto in Round 2.

Based on what we’ve seen in the bubble thus far, is there a dark horse/sleeper that we think can come out of this? Either because of what the time off allowed in terms of health, or because of the lack of home-court advantage? Who, if anyone, are we looking at differently now?

dubin: I don’t know that I’m necessarily looking at them differently, but for me I think it’s Houston. James Harden can win any game/series on his own, the Rockets’ style introduces a degree of variance nobody else can match, and they’re just so weird to play against. There’s nobody else like them, so you can’t really get a tune-up until you’re on the court against them.

They also got the second-largest title odds bump in the projections before the restart in the shift from regular playoffs to neutral-site. (First was the Sixers.)

chris.herring: HA, Sixers.

sara.ziegler: LOL, the model didn’t know what would happen to Simmons!

chris.herring: They are truly something.

dre.waters: I was going to say Houston too. To add to that I think Eric Gordon’s return is big for them.

sara.ziegler: If Houston’s short-ball (NOT small-ball) system pays off, that would be an incredible story.

dubin: I would just love for Mike D’Antoni to win a title. I’d be so happy for him.

chris.herring: I guess I was mostly curious about what this restart would do for a team like Toronto. The Raptors were banged up ALL year. They’ve got guys who can’t/won’t qualify for sixth man stuff because they ended up being used as starters out of necessity, with all their injuries.

And while it’s easy to assume that the Raps would be better with a full deck, I did think the bubble concept, along with not having had their full rotation available all year, would create some questions for them — ones that could either help or hurt them, depending on how things played out. Their defense, save for the game against Boston, has been unreal.

sara.ziegler: I don’t think we’re allowed to sleep on the Raptors ever again after last season, so maybe they’re not exactly a dark horse. But they have looked so strong so far.

chris.herring: Not having Kawhi Leonard makes you a dark, dark horse!

sara.ziegler: Haha, true.

chris.herring: At least we thought it did going into the season!

dubin: I don’t want to say too much about their defense for fear of spoiling the story that I took a break from writing to do this chat.

chris.herring: lol

*knock on wood*

sara.ziegler: That’s fair, Jared. But I will say that they’re the only team with a defensive rating approaching 100 in the bubble — at 101.8 after Wednesday night’s game.

chris.herring: They’re the only team even close to that number. The Rockets are the next best at 106.4.

dubin: They have the advantage of being able to play essentially any style because of the versatility and depth they have, as well as Nick Nurse’s creativity and the collective basketball intelligence on the team. Having Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol makes things pretty fun, and then the younger guys are all different combinations of feisty, strong, rangy and other good defense-y sounding words I’m not gonna think of right now.

They can go small with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby as the front line, or big with Gasol-Ibaka-Siakam. They can mix and match Lowry, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, even Terence Davis. There’s just so much to work with.

chris.herring: Part of me is hoping they and the Bucks meet again this postseason. Giannis Antetokounmpo definitely wants revenge, and is apparently head-butting people now!

dre.waters: That was crazy!

I think it would be fun to see them go at it. But without Kawhi, I want to see how they stop Giannis for four games.

sara.ziegler: I just want to get the playoffs started!

I’m so greedy — having basketball back isn’t enough for me.

chris.herring: Just a few more days, and will have them. Maybe I’ll try to submit a video so I can be a virtual fan and feel closer to the action.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.